FAWN: My Historical Response To Hysterical White People

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serious black woman
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Self

A few months back, I found myself in a meeting where a powerful, wealthy white male completely lost composure.

You know, he acted in a way that would land most of us in the time-out corner.

All eyes and focus went towards him to quell his discomfort. All eyes but mine and my Black, female colleague. 

We saw clear as day what was happening because we’ve seen it countless times before.

When white people present as uncomfortable, others are expected to drop everything and meet their needs with quickness.

This learned response is also known as fawning, and I, too, used to exhibit it.

I have had a torrid, destructive, and complicated history and relationship with FAWN.

For those who need a refresher or are new to the concept, fawning is one of four trauma responses — the other three being fight, flight, and freeze — in which a person reverts to people-pleasing and neglecting their own needs and boundaries as a way to avoid conflict and maintain a sense of safety.

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From the time I was a small girl, I remember watching my parents through the mesh of the playpen that was tucked away in the corner of the wealthy white people’s home where my parents worked as domestics.

I was not to be noticed or to allow them to be bothered by my presence, but I was still close enough that my parents could sneak a glance and confirm that I was ok, staying quiet and out of the way.

It is here that I have my earliest recollection of fawning.

I watched the faces and bodies of my Black and Latina parents scurry and move to help, accommodate, and support the white bodies and faces.

Anytime the white bodies and faces seemed uncomfortable or disturbed, the scurry got quicker and the air tighter.

My father moved swiftly with precision and a facial expression I rarely saw when I roamed free at home, his chin slightly tucked and his eyes down.

My mom moved very quickly as well, sharply, and at times jerky.

Her face, too, was different from how she was at home where she continuously laughed, whistled, and sang.

As I grew old enough to sport my own domestic outfit with a white apron and all, my job was to watch intensely for what was needed, address it, and not be seen or heard.

I was not to disturb the white bodies and faces.

When the white women gathered for lunch and cards at our boss lady’s house, my job was to watch the cups and faces to make sure that the coffee in the cup was exactly aligned to the preference of the white body it belonged to.

If there was a slight twitch in the face of one of the white women I would replace the cup with a fresh steaming hot coffee with the precise amount of cream and one or two cubes of sugar without disturbing anyone or being noticed.

I did not know this word at the time, but I was exceptional at fawning.

We all were; for my parents and me, fawning meant we survived a day without reprimand, chastising, or criticism.

It also meant that our livelihood was secured for that moment, that day, and hopefully that week.

As I entered corporate America, my exceptionally engrained fawning expertise made me a perfect worker.

I worked myself to exhaustion, took feedback on my appearance, work, and endured microaggressions with my chin slightly tucked and eyes down.

I rarely questioned my predominantly white boss’ bodies and faces, I simply did what I had learned all my life; I asked how high and how hard I had to work to minimize any level of unease and discomfort for them.

And it worked. I secured my job and paycheck for that moment, that day, and that week. I survived.

After some time in corporate America, I was in a meeting where a white male body and face became so uncomfortable, impatient, and disturbed in a meeting that he picked up a chair and hurled it across the room.

As I watched the chair move past my body and I stood frozen and stunned, I noticed for the first time the discomfort in my own body.

As I left the meeting room with the white male body and face now red as a tomato yelling words I could not make out, it was as if I’d zoomed out to see a scene that was very familiar, one I’d witnessed many times with my parents and their white-bodied bosses.

As I made my way to the office parking lot to cry and scream in my car, I finally allowed myself to FEEL.

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I found anger, fear, shame, embarrassment, unworthiness, and self-loathing inside myself from the history I endured and its hatred that ran and scorched its way through every inch of my shaking body.

I screamed as I felt the anger of that moment and all the other moments where I numbed my own feelings to address and attend to the unease, discomfort, and impatience of a white body and face.

I allowed myself to FEEL what I had been conditioned and programmed not to feel — the impact, value, and sensation of my own discomfort. This was the turning point for me.

From this moment on, I had a clear view and understanding of my own conditioning, and I committed to doing the work I needed to do to dismantle it.

I continue to heal to this day and I’d like to share with you some of my findings and thoughts:

For my BIPOC family:

Continue to develop your perception of how the constructs of race and gender are created in a way that expects us to fawn when white bodies and faces are in discomfort.

Seek the help you need to unpack where and how this shows up in your personal and professional life.

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Know that there will be consequences for commencing this work.

When I ceased fawning in professional spaces, I was met with waves of pushback.

I became known as difficult and non-conforming, to say the least, but I would do it all over again knowing the rewards of seeing and living in my Truth.

I cannot stress this enough: be gentle with yourself. Becoming aware of your trauma responses means having a more intimate understanding of your own trauma. Healing does not come without pain, but it is the pain of growth and a return to your own sovereignty.

For my white friends:

Self-awareness, self-awareness, self-awareness.

If you notice discomfort within yourself, especially in response to being approached in a way that is unfamiliar to you, ask how you can be open and curious about the experience, rather than defaulting to anger or rage.

The more you are aware of your own inner workings, the better handle you’ll have on it.

White Men:

Screaming, smashing, and throwing things are not signs of power; they are the behavior of someone who is immature and out of control.

Be honest with yourself about your own trauma. There’s a saying “if it’s hysterical, it’s historical.”

There’s no shame in reaching out for support in your own healing and it certainly beats inflicting more trauma on those around you.

White women: I notice that when white women cry, it has a similar effect on a room as a white man becoming impatient or irate.

All the focus goes on reestablishing your comfort and contentment, regardless of the matter at hand. Take a beat to decenter yourself.

Everyone in the room has a place and a purpose, and in any given moment, yours might be to sit back and actively listen.

Our traumas, and traumatic responses, do not have to define us; they do not have to control the way we build and interact in relationships.

We have the capabilities to realign to our true selves and create lives where we thrive in ways that honor our worthiness and authenticity.

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Aurora Archer led the team who won the first healthcare campaign to win a Cannes Lions Grand Prix in 2015 for "Take it from a Fish"; was recognized for Leadership in Technology by the Association for Women in Computing, and has been the subject of a cover story in Working Mother magazine. Learn more here.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.